03/04/2018 Sermon

Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Third Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Genesis 22: 1-14

Holy Scripture acts like a mirror, reflecting our relationships with God back to us. The reflection this morning’s passage throws back is likely one we may prefer not to see. This morning we come face to face with our God, the One whose call to love tests human beings. How terrifying it is to have a God who gives tests we are prone to fail! But, this morning’s passage also shows us a God who provides strength for our journey toward the One who is Love Herself. That’s the grace found even in its harshness. God’s testing does not come without God’s provision; they are two sides of the same coin. Let us pray.

Lord, we would sit on a more comfortable pew. Left to our own devices, we would worship in a church whose God was easier, less demanding. We would kneel before a God whose joys did not carry heavy costs. Give us the faith that binds us eternally to you, the only God we have, and the only one we need. The Lord, the One who demands everything of us, but not before you give us just that, everything. Amen.

If none of us had ever travelled the road leading to the land of Moriah, the person dearest to us in tow, it would be easier to dismiss the story of Abraham’s anguished faith as a barbaric throwback to an ancient culture that cannot speak into our twenty first century reality. But we have walked along that road. We have learned that faith in God is not just a response to a promise; it is also a response to a command to love God and other people without counting the cost. Responding to such a command demands sacrifice on our part. A sacrifice we are not prepared to make. It is so much easier to receive the gifts of God than to let them go. And yet our faith requires we do both. We had to say goodbye to our dear Alan Steilberg this past week. And 17 sets of parents had to say goodbye to the children our gun culture sacrificed on the altar of the right to own automatic weapons on Valentine’s day. So the issues of faith through great difficulty Abraham dealt with on the road to Moriah are not so different now as then.

When I was in seminary I had a very disturbing dream. My brother Andrew was battling a fever that threatened to take his life. I was holding onto his long body upstairs in the hallway of my parent’s house. Trying to secure his bigger frame on my lap as his head lolled from side to side, I mopped his brow with a wet cloth as he softly moaned. In the midst of the sporadic prayers I managed to frame for his healing even in the midst of my anguish over his suffering, I heard a voice. “Do you believe in the resurrection now?” My brother’s, I know the question meant, and my own, from grief and despair.

The road to Moriah. The road we travel down after we hear God’s command to give back to God someone or something around which we have constructed our future. A road that, for this moment, in my life, was a path carved, thankfully, only through a nightmare. But the call to walk that road has stretched out before many of us during waking hours. God calls us to faith, to hope, to love – and they can all hurt.

This was not the plan, she told me. We were close to retirement. Had plenty of money saved. The mortgage paid off. We were planning on enjoying the next twenty five years together. The bike accident changed all that. I was sure I would go before him, he was always so active…..

A middle aged woman enters a relationship. On the outside, the man seems perfect for her. Educated, environmentally concerned, willing to live her funky lifestyle, politically active, socially involved. They discuss marriage. He can’t envision himself living away from the cosmopolitan coast. She thinks about making a leap of faith. She argues with herself, if God provided him, after such long waiting and hoping, shouldn’t she follow where this leads? She makes preparations. Rents out her home, resigns her position as executive director of a small non-profit. She dares, hoping her trust will not be in vain. Two days before she is to leave for the West Coast, the man calls. Cold feet. Don’t come. She can feel the flames of disappointment and anger licking at her hands. The panic about what she will do now, how she will face the friends and family that have only just given her a farewell party. Faith, hope and love have surely asked too much of her this time………

Another couple prays, determined to trust God’s leading. Should they have another child? They choose not to do so, deciding to foster a child with the intention to adopt. A beautiful baby girl. She joins their family. Two years later, before the adoption is final, a biological aunt decides she wants custody. The courts award it to her. At this point, giving her up means all but cutting out their hearts. Has their faith been in vain?

That is the question that dogs all of us when we are called to trust beyond our own seeing, our own knowing, our own ability to provide. That was the question that surely dogs Abraham when he hears his son’s plaintive question, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” That is the question that leaves Abraham between God’s testing and his trusting, between his faith and God’s faithfulness, between the rock of God’s inscrutability and the hard place of continuing to trust when there is no ram yet in sight. Those are the places out of which faith, hope and love are certainly not the easy way out. They are simply the only way out.

But, the only way out is a way we often can’t muster up the courage, the will, the, faith or the hope to forge on our own. To walk the narrow way, we need God’s help. The entire time I was in seminary, I had a spiritual director with whom I worked. He would sit with me an hour a week, for all three years I was there, to help me listen for where God was working in my life. I remember one specific time I was angry with God about the situation I was in. I was convinced that God had taken me on a snipe hunt with the whole seminary journey.

You know snipe hunting don’t you? Shrewd kids take gullible kids looking for them in the middle of the night. Don’t ask me to describe snipes. They don’t exist. Snipes were invented in order to lure innocence out into the dark yard, or basement, where it can be scared and left, much to the delight of the one doing the leaving. I felt God had taken me snipe hunting. Down the road to the land of Moriah. I was tired and discouraged. I missed my friends and my life in Washington. I had given up an old life and could not yet see beyond the call to sacrifice my old life to the provision that would come with the new.

My spiritual director was trying. I accused God of testing beyond the bounds of civility. He tried to remind me that God was a God of love. And that love does not take faith and hope snipe hunting. Love I sneered, love?! Don’t talk to me about love. I know exactly where love leads, to a cross!!! More test than any of us could bear. I was not wrong my friends. You know that as well as I do. You and I have both spent time on the road to Moriah. But I was just half right. I was refusing to acknowledge where Good Friday leads.

Four hundred years ago the wife of the great reformer Martin Luther listened as her husband read this morning’s story of Abraham and Isaac. She heard it and demanded, “How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son?” “Why Katy,” Luther said to her, “He did it himself.”

If this passage from Genesis teaches us nothing else, it leaves us with this. This is a raw and wild God we are dealing with. A God who asks us to risk love, which means risking everything, risk everything, but not only for God’s sake. Also our own salvation. To have an abundant life we, by definition, must dare. That means Trusting God. Having faith. Hope. And Love. How else will we come to know the Love who is holding us if we are so afraid of its pain that we refuse to open ourselves fully to Love’s Author? But who of us can make the sacrifices faith, hope and love require willingly? Who has enough courage, or faith, or trust?

And so, the far end of God’s demand that Abraham give up everything for his sake was this: God provided the lamb. The risk we cannot take without a pioneer showing us the way of love has already been taken. The road to the land of Moriah has been walked on our behalf. A young man turns his face to Jerusalem, to suffering and rejection. The road to Moriah has become the road to Calvary. Jesus walks up that other Mountain, dragging a cross behind; he opens out his hands to receive the nails. God’s Son. . .The Lamb of God. . . This wild God who gives us everything, who asks of us everything, who is with us in everything. [1] The God who tests. The God who also provides.

In the name of the Creator, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

[1] The last four paragraphs are adapted from a sermon by the Rev. Samuel T. Loyd preached on June 27, 1999 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, MA.